Even if you only have access to a couple of sugar or black maple trees (red and silver maples will work, too, though their sap doesn’t have as high a sugar content) you can make enough syrup for at least one memorable pancake breakfast! Here’s what you’ll need:
- Spouts (also called spiles) for each tap hole. Farm and feed type stores usually carry these. McGough’s (Eighth Street and Lake Avenue, Traverse City. 231-947-5900) has them for $2.79 a piece.
- Drill with a bit that is the same diameter as the narrow end of your spout.
- Very clean plastic milk jugs. Screw the lids on (to keep out snow, rain and debris) and make a hole, just big enough to hang the jug from the spout, toward the top of the the side of the jug that is opposite the handle.
- A large-bottomed pan that is at least six inches deep.
- Outdoor heat source. A grate set on two cement blocks over a bonfire with plenty of firewood works; so does a camping stove with plenty of fuel.
- Candy thermometer with a scale that is readable from 200 to 230 degrees Fahrenheit.
- A filter for straining the sap and the syrup of bark, ash and any other debris that may get in during the collection and cooking process. Several layers of cheesecloth works. Or Check farm and feed stores for filters specially made for maple sugaring. McGough’s in Traverse City has them for $1.99.
- Sterilized jars with lids for storing the syrup.
Collection: Tapping season begins when the nights are below freezing and the days warm to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In Northern Michigan that generally begins to happen around the first week in March. Trees should be at least 10 inches in diameter, as measured at their four-foot height. At that height, drill a hole into the tree that is from 1.5 to three inches deep. Lightly tap the spout in until it sits snuggly in the tree. Hang the collection jugs on the spout. Collect sap every day and strain it through the filter. Sap should not be stored for more than a day (and then only if it is cold) because it will spoil. Collection season ends when the trees start to bud and the sap begins to taste bitter.
Making Syrup: Before you begin boiling your sap, determine the temperature water boils (it varies according to elevation and weather patterns) by filling a pan with water and bringing it to a vigorous boil. Insert the candy thermometer in the center of the pan (not touching the bottom or the sides) and jot down the temperature. Your sap will be syrup when it reaches that temperature plus 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fill your sap/syrup pan to a couple inches from the top and bring to a boil. Scrape off any foam that forms at the top. Keep adding sap as it evaporates. Keep at least 1.5 inches of liquid in the pan at all times, and lower heat a bit as sap turns to syrup so it doesn’t scorch. When all your sap is added and the temperature reaches the boiling point of water plus 7.1 degrees, your syrup is finished. It will take about 10 gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup. Filter the hot syrup into a clean container. Ladel or pour hot syrup (185 degrees if you plan on storing them unrefrigerated) into the jars, seal the lids and turn them upside down for a few minutes. Now go make pancakes!